When guitarist Dennis Stratton was unceremoniously ousted from improbably long-running NWOBHM icons Iron Maiden, many wondered what lay ahead for the axeman. Reemerging in 1980 with the Jess Cox (ex-Tygers Of Pan Tang)-fueled Lionheart, the group unleashed their full-length debut Hot Tonight in 1984 before implodi- ng amid an array of label turmoil and a general lack of interest. Fortunately for all parties involved, they would ultimately persevere as a 2016 performance at Rockingham intended to be a 'one-off' would lead to a permanent reunion. Releasing Second Nature (2017) and The Reality Of Miracles (2020), the group has continued to surge ahead unabated. Recently, the oft-charismatic Stratton, always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with in regards to, among other things, the highly-anticipated re-release of Second Nature.
Todd: What made now the 'right' time to re-release Second Nature? Were you unhappy with the initial pressing?
Dennis: “Basically, when we first started recording again, we decided on Second Nature. And at the time, it was all pretty new because we hadn't recorded together since the Japanese album we did (i.e., Unearthed - Raiders Of The Lost Archives, 1999), so we were a little bit in the dark of companies and who to approach. And what happened was we already had a record company in Japan (King Records) which we've all been involved with through inaudible (former Scorpions and UFO guitarist) Michael Schenker. And what we decided to do was to let King Records have the Japanese side of it because we've always had a really good relationship with them. And we then found that there was a couple of companies that wanted to sign us for the album and unfortunately, one of them was (Germany-based) AOR Heaven (Records), who we really didn't know too much about. ...Then we found out that they didn't actually help the band too much because all they did was release it within Europe.”
Todd: How did the group become involved with Metalville Records? Did you 'seek' them or did they 'seek' you?
Dennis: “It was a bit of a shame, really because we all felt a little bit let down in regards to the way the record company performed as it was well under par. And then when we got approached by (former Nuclear Blast A&R Manager) Holger (Koch) from Metalville because he manages (Doro/ex-Warlock vocalist) Doro (Pesch) and a a mutual friend of ours plays guitar with Doro. We got a call from Holger saying that he was interested in pushing Lionheart and releasing The Reality Of Miracles (2020). And it was after he released The Reality Of Miracles that they asked us why Second Nature wasn't released worldwide, because a lot of our music is designed to lean towards the states. So we told him about the deal we'd done with AOR Heaven that was just for Europe and he said 'It's a shame because it's a good record' And then he said 'Well, what about re-releasing it, but we release it globally' and we said 'That's fantastic'. It really was a little bit of a buzz for us because we thought we had been pushed aside again, so we're quite happy that he's gotten behind it now. ...Now it's finally out all over the place.”
Todd: Prior to signing with Metalville, what type of label was the group the most interested in working with? Would you rather work with a major label with global distribution or a big independent that would push harder?
Dennis: “We couldn't decide whether to go with a big label and get cataloged with twenty or thirty other bands or go with not such a massive label and try and get someone to pay more attention to the pushing of Lionheart. We've tried the smaller label route with Second Nature and we're with Metalville at the moment, but only for The Reality Of Miracles. You step up a gear every time you do another album and the transition from Second Nature to The Reality Of Miracles was a big step up. And the new music is sounding great as well. I've heard eight or nine rough tracks that need backing vocals and guitar solos on. (Vocalist) Lee Small did a marvelous job putting some guide vocals down. And when Lee puts the guide vocals down, he also does the harmonies for the choruses, so we can get an idea. We've all contributed towards the album song-wise. We're all always writing songs. So basically, we're about eight or nine songs in. And we should start. Steve is now putting all the backing tracks together, and we should start receiving the stems for backing vocals and solos sometime by the end of next week. So as I say, on my phone, I can listen to seven, eight or nine three-quarter finished songs that need quite a bit more work done to them. But the actual ideas are there and they're all sounding rather fantastic.”
Todd: What ultimately led to the group breaking up? Having spent a great deal of time overindulging amid Hot Tonight and Unearthed - Raiders Of The Lost Archives, the group's overall lack of successes is so unfathomable.
Dennis: “We didn't actually break up. ...What it was was that (keyboardist) Steve (Mann) and (bassist) Rocky (Newton) were working with Michael Schenker because in those days, Lionheart got let down badly in the '80's by CBS (Records). We were supposed to tour in the States with Foreigner, Kansas and REO Speedwagon. They had all the promises, so we were very let down by CBS when we got home to the UK. Basically, what happened is that we were still seeing one another and writing together at odd times because Steve and Rocky were still working with Schenker. Then I got involved with (NWOBHM legends) Praying Mantis, and before we knew it, fifteen years had gone by. And in that time, we were still able to get together. Me, Rocky and Steve had been able to release the compilation album of all the old stuff from the '80's on (Japan-based) Pony Canyon (Records). And although we weren't playing live together, we were still in contact with one another. ...At the time, Steve had been working in London, but then moved to Germany. It was only because we took other gigs because we loved playing and we wanted to work together live. So I ended up spending fifteen years with Praying Mantis and Rocky and Steve were doing all other kinds of things. Steve got really into Producing and Mastering different bands in the studio. We still kept in contact although we wasn't actually a live working band. ...Some of the guys guys in the UK, Dave Ling and Rob Evans from Kerrang! (magazine) and Classic Rock (magazine) were talking to us about maybe getting together to do another album. We didn't actually know what to do, but then with Second Nature, we included a few songs that never made the first album and then we wrote a few new ones, too and it seemed to really click. And that's why we recorded Second Nature. I think if you listen to The Reality Of Miracles, within that two and a half to three years stretch, with COVID being bad leading to the lock down, I think you'll hear the improvement and the difference in the songs and the Production as it moves from Second Nature to The Reality Of Miracles. We just started getting together again. We did a couple of gigs in London and then we went and did (The) Sweden Rock (Festival) and then we all went on tour over to Japan. It seemed to click and it felt good playing together again after a break, if you know what I mean.”
Todd: That still doesn't explain the lack of success within the 'MTV' era. Taking into consideration the group's overall look and tonalities, Hot Tonight really should have been only the beginning of a long and fruitful career.
Dennis: “That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? ...The thing is, Lionheart just isn't this big money-earning band. We don't have much of an income from Lionheart, so we all have other projects that we've been working on for many, many years, that bring in an real income. For instance, Rocky and Steve working with Michael Schenker. Now, other band members like (drummer) Clive Edwards, he works with all these different people, from UFO right through to the guys from Status Quo. Then you've got (vocalist) Lee Small, who's constantly doing vocal sessions, and now he's doing a gig playing bass and vocals for Andy Scott of Sweet. ...Myself, I work all the time. In the UK, I'm working every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and most of the time, my work is in Europe doing the Iron Maiden conventions. I work in all the countries in Europe, right the way through and that's my income. We had tried to finish The Reality Of Miracles, but the album was basically three-quarters the way recorded because Steve was so busy with Michael Schenker. We couldn't seem to actually tie him down to the studio. But then, in March of 2020, they put us on in lock down, which meant Steve couldn't go to a room with Michael Schenker and he was isolating in his studio. But what this meant was he had every day to work on our own stuff, and that's exactly what happened. Although we were pulling our hair out over not being able to tour, not being able to play live on all my shows, the one big thing was the fortieth anniversary of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and it was the fortieth anniversary of the first Iron Maiden album. ...Even without involving Lionheart, I was booked all over the world, from South America to everywhere else, doing all of these Iron Maiden conventions to celebrate the forty year anniversary. That was going to be a big year. When I came back from Italy at the end of February of 2020 and that was it, just complete lock down. I'd done five shows ending in Rome, with the last show coming in late last February. ...So no one has been able to do it. Steve did a couple of gigs with Schenker, but that was cut short. That was stopped because we'd gone into another fright over in the UK, so Schenker was only able to do two or three shows. In a way, it was a blessing that we couldn't tour because then we could finish the album, but on the other side of the coin, it was horrible because we've all been stuck home. The only good thing that came from this lock down is we'd finished The Reality Of Miracles.”
Todd: How did you become involved with Praying Mantis? You are a huge part of their lineage. Did you have a working relationship with them prior to becoming an 'official member'? You did run in some of the same circles.
Dennis: “It was fantastic because (vocalist) Tino (Troy) and (guitarist) Chris were just great to work with. They started supporting Maiden on the very first Metal For Muthas tour, so I got to know them really well throughout my first year in 1979. We stayed in contact and used to meet up every now and again in London at different gigs at The Marquis and Hammersmith Odeon. Basically, after Lionheart dwindled out in the late '80's and Steve and Rocky were working with Schenker, they said to me 'Look, we've been asked to go to Japan with Mantis, but they want you to come with us to make it like a collaboration of the Troy Brothers and yourself'. And then, when we got to Japan, we got such a great response that the record company said that they wanted a studio album although they'd recorded the live album Live At Last (1990). The only drawback with Mantis is that he was we couldn't actually get a full-time vocalist. Lionheart had the same problem in the early days of looking for a great singer that could get above our three-part harmony with me, Rocky and Steve. We had the same problem with Mantis, with me, Chris and Tino. You'd have these three massive backing vocals, but we needed a lead vocalist to get over the top. If you look through the history of Mantis, there's different singers every now and then on different albums, so we were all a little bit unfortunate that way. ...But to be honest with you, those fifteen years really did fly by. ...I was like 'Where did all the years ago?', because it all went by so very quickly.”
Todd: Obviously, the group was--and continues to be--popular in Japan. It's odd that it never expanded globally.
Dennis: “Another problem we had, very similar to what had happened to Lionheart, was a lack of management. It was the same way with Lionheart in the early '80s'. We couldn't nail down a really good manager, so we were basically managing ourselves. We got by okay by having Ben Challis (a UK-based lawyer that specializes in music and entertainment law) at an office in London. He used to work for Harvey Goldsmith and he would take care of all our contracts and securities regarding record companies, advances and rehearsals. But he still wasn't a full-time manager. We got by okay by doing festivals like the Wacken (Open Air Festival) in Germany. ...But we never actually got onto some of the big support tours like we should have done. And I do think that was all down to our record company being based in Japan and not in the UK or America. ...And we definitely struggled sometimes, but we were always very well received throughout of the gigs we played and all of the tours we did”
Todd: What prompted you to leave Iron Maiden? In hindsight, it seems you departed immediately prior to the group started to gain commercial traction. All of the slick music 'rags' made such a big deal of it back in the day.
Dennis: “I think it was more to do with their manager Rod Smallwood. He was very young at the time and I was older than him. ...I had already been on tour with Status Quo all over the world in the mid-'70's and I'd already had a lot of touring experience in front of sixty or eighty thousand people because I had already been with Quo over Europe and Scandinavia, which meant we were playing massive stadiums. So I had a lot of experience there, but I also had quite a lot of recording experience. Basically, Maiden got me in because Steve and Dave used to come down to the Bridge House in Canning Town West where we lived and watched me play with RVB, the band I was working with at the time. When they signed to EMI (Records), they were very young and needed someone with a bit more experience in the studio to get those songs to sound bigger and better. And I could do that was because I've always played in bands with harmony guitars like (British Hard Rock legends) Wishbone Ash and things like that. I've always played that style, so when we started working on (the first Iron Maiden EP) The Soundhouse Tapes (1979), I knew what my job was to do and that's what we did. But I'm also one of these people that find, if you stay around a band twenty-four hours a day, people get tired o each other. They get irritable and can cause rouse. And I was a little bit older than the rest of them and liked a little bit of my own freedom. ...Sometimes, when we'd tour, I'd travel with the road crew because they're funny. And sometimes, I'd travel with a friend because if they'd got a car. They would say 'We're going to the next show' and I'd jump in the car with them. When we were in Italy on the tour, I used to disappear while the rest of the band were stuck together twenty-four hours a day. It caused a rouse because Rod always said to me 'You don't seem like part of the band' and I said 'I just don't think it's a good idea to shut people away twenty-four hours a day'. He didn't like the music I listened to because I liked a lot of the American bands like Foreigner, Journey and Toto because they were all world-class musicians. But that's just me. There was no animosity in it and there was no attempt to be different or distant. It was just the fact that I liked these guys and he didn't and it caused a rouse. It caused arguments. And then he started accusing me of not being into the band. I just gave up in the end and said 'Look. am I not doing my job?' and he went 'Yes, you're doing a fantastic job' and I said 'So what's the problem?' Then it just got worse. In the end, we shook hands and decided to part ways. And that was that. It was the early days.”
Todd: At this point, how would you describe your relationship with Iron Maiden? Are you still in contact with (guitarist) Dave (Murray) or (bassist) Steve (Harris)? I would imagine time has healed most of your old wounds.
Dennis: “Oh, it's fantastic. I still see (bassist) Steve Harris. We still get together for a beer and we have a chat on the phone about football in West Ham (i.e., West Ham United Football Club). ...We flew over to Vegas to see the Legacy Of The Beast (tour) before the lock down, so that was the end of 2019. It's so great to know after forty years, you still get the recognition of playing and arranging an iconic album. It's always good to hear from the people about how the old lineup compares to the new. You're going to get people favoring one or the other, but it doesn't matter. It's taken a long time to actually get this recognition. It's strange because in 1984, when I was with Lionheart in Los Angeles recording at Sound City Studios, no one really knew much about them, so when I was there, no one knew me. ...Basically, when I got out to America, no one really knew me even though on the Lionheart bio, it said 'ex-Iron Maiden guitarist'. It was only later, as Maiden got bigger and the more countries I visited, the more people knew me. It was a a delayed reaction, if you see what I mean. But it's still so lovely to look back, especially getting nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. It's really nice to have the memory.”
Second Nature (2017)
The Journey Goes On (2003)
Nowhere To Hide (2000)
Forever In Time (1998)
Made In Iron (1997)
As Hard As Iron (1996)
The Original Iron Men (1995)
To The Power Of Ten (1995)
Plays In The East (1994)
A Cry For The New World (1993)
Only The Children Cry (EP) (1993)
Predator In Disguise (1991)
Live At Last (1990)
12 Wasted Years (1987)
Hot Tonight (1984)
Live! + One (EP) (1980)
Iron Maiden (1980)
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